Monday, April 30, 2007

abridge too far

Some things can afford to be cut down a bit:
1. The price of cereal at Gourmet Heaven.
2. The 'tudes of the women who work in the law school cafeteria.
3. Franzen's The Corrections, The Land Before Time franchise, any rap CD with skits, Anne Hathaway's career (ERC finds her toothy and smarmy).

Classics of the Western canon? Not so much--at least, not in the eyes of the "indignant literary purists" cited in this Times UK article, which describes a recent line of "Compact Editions" released by a UK publisher called the Orion Group. The heavily abridged books, which rewrite novels like Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and David Copperfield, promise to eliminate the excessive "padding" one encounters in canonical texts. "You're not supposed to say this," said the publisher, "but I think that one of the reasons Jane Austen always does so well in reader polls is that her books aren't that long."

At first, I thought I had come across a decidedly un-funny British version of the Onion. I mean, really? The editor, who is quoted as saying things like "We realized that life is too short to read all the books you want to and we were never going to read these," begs to be portrayed by Hugh Grant (screenwriter's notes: foppish womanizer, devilish grin), with the role of the independent bookseller--"It's completely ridiculous--a daft idea!"--going to a foxily taciturn Colin Firth. But people seem to have warmed up to the idea, at least in the "comments" section that follows the article (Reading the comments sections of online media is often more enjoyable than reading the articles, as they often devolve into incoherent conflict or sexual intrigue).
"If one really loves literature and wish to see it thrive, then it would seem to me one would be overjoyed to see people reading the classics--even if it's an abridged version. I'd much rather see someone read an abridged version of Moby Dick, than watch a few weeks of Survivor." -Dar, Macomb, IL
It goes without saying that this is an overtly silly concept; because the meaning, or value, of literature inheres in both its content and its form, making severe changes to the latter while conserving most of the former is still tantamount to complete artistic revision. More interesting, I think, is asking what even positing the idea says about why we read, or about contemporary culture's attitude towards literature. Severely abridging "difficult" texts serves two purposes:

1. It makes such works accessible to groups that lack the necessary education or time to comprehend them.
2. It thrusts our experience of literature into the material realm, fully implicating books as objects of commercial exchange.

The second justification, or the commercialization of of "having read," speaks to a larger phenomenon in consumer culture that's more difficult to address. If people view War and Peace and Crime and Punishment as notches on their literary bedposts, then more power to them, so long as they've actually read the texts rather than the Great Illustrated Classics. Fetishizing books as titles, after all, will most likely translate into an inability to speak intelligently about the ideas they convey.

The first justification--which addresses a dilemma that's similar to the "incommensurability" problem of public art that I discussed earlier--raises a question that deserves consideration, but poses a flawed solution. While it's a worthy cause to facilitate the dissemination of high culture to the lowly masses, such works should not be abridged and revised--essentially, lowered--to meet the public; the general reader should be hoisted to their level. Widespread structural changes (i.e., better public education) aside, a feasible way of promoting such cultural uplifting is, as with the the "better wall text" I advocated for public sculpture, the improvement and aestheticization of "packaging"--materials that are auxiliary to the texts. Although the practice is relatively rare, newspapers still publish serials of contemporary fiction; why can't publishers print segmented versions of the classics (if they want to alleviate the aesthetic concerns raised by the second justification, or eliminate the stigma of reading an "easy" version, imprints could bury the segmented/explicated nature of the text in the interior)? And shouldn't there be a way of deftly inserting explanatory material without resorting to pages and pages of academic footnotes?

I'm interested in hearing plausible solutions and suggestions for this...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

TIWMANH vol. 2

THINGS I WON'T MISS ABOUT NEW HAVEN: YALE EDITION

SPRING FLING: As ivygate points out, Yale and its brethren--Brown notwithstanding--regularly churn out stunningly awful line-ups for their Spring Flings. For those of you who don't know, SF is a sort of nerdish simulacrum of an actual music festival, in which elite Northeastern schools hire bands to perform for the students. At Yale, this means everyone collectively plays "normal" for a day--the pale, scrawny student body breaks out their abercrombie cargo shorts, drinks forties, barbecues--before returning to their pitch-dark hovels in SML for the rest of reading period. And by "everyone," I mean me, of course.

Anyways, this year, the Yale College Council hired T.I., Sister Hazel, and the Format. I guess T.I. is kind of a big deal--the only song I've heard of is the one where he grunts, "WHACHOO KNOW BOUT BLAH BLAH" over and over--but, needless to say, the one-hit-wonder-ness and obscurity of the other two acts has caused a bit of an uproar. I'll defend the Format--they only cost the YCC about three g's, and they're from erc's hometown--but paying $17,500 for Sister Hazel is humiliating, to say the least.

With $17,500, the YCC could have paid 100 masseuses to walk around Spring Fling for an hour, giving deep tissue massages. They could have bought 250 kegs, or 4500 pints of Ben and Jerry's. They could have given the Flower Lady a semester's worth of a Yale education. The only way I'll feel okay about this is if T.I.--who appears to be some sort of thug--jumps onstage at the end of Sister Hazel's set (how can you play a "set" if you're a one-hit wonder?) and busts a cap on them. Then busts a cap on the YCC. Basically, I just want to see some caps busted, then I want to return to my hovel.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Maya & Me

A couple years ago, I was standing on the corner of York and Elm when a crazy guy (the tall, lumbering fellow with the beard and the broken glasses) approached me and told me that I "reminded him of Maya Lin."

Obviously, the first thing I did when I returned home that afternoon was to google image search Maya Lin, who, of course, looks nothing like me. I chalked it up to white people thinking all asians look alike and homeless people being starved for conversation and forgot about the affair.

I recalled the experience yesterday, when a class of mine screened Maya Lin: A Clear and Strong Vision, a short documentary about the controversy surrounding the design and reception of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Very interesting subject matter--the piece raises questions related to the accountability of public art, the purpose of a memorial, the ability of artistic innovation to reform its audience, the profits of a conflict-based discourse--with a very strange leading lady. Essentially, Maya Lin seems totally nuts: She wears wacky outfits and floppy hats, her hair is constantly flying in various directions, she speaks in an absurdly low voice, her face twitches a lot, and she smiles at the wrong moments.

So it all comes full circle: In saying that I "reminded" him of Maya Lin, the homeless man was pointing to our shared awkward demeanor/physical comportment rather than some race-based similarity. In retrospect, I wish I had responded by telling him he looks like Bruce Vilanch of Hollywood Squares infamy rather than pretending I didn't have any spare change.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thursday, April 19, 2007

enemies of the people

Somewhere in Chicago, a public sculpture installment--composed of sixteen "waves" of concrete, each weighing over a thousand pounds--will be displaced to "make room for new landscaping. This short Tribune piece describes the city council's struggle to find new homes for the waves, which cost a hefty $400,000 collectively. The Des Plaines aldermen, some of whom "oppose the waves as public art" and are loathe to stomach the financial loss, are even more hesitant to stomach placing the sculptures in their own backyards. One volunteers that he has a summer home.

As a liberal, philosophically-inclined sort, it's safe to say that my knee-jerk reaction is to immediately defend the freedom of artistic expression and the importance of proliferating culture. But the pervasiveness and contentious nature of the issue demands more attention.

While "The Malignant Object: Thoughts on Public Sculpture," by Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour, was printed in Art and Society in the 80's, the article poses a pragmatic, self-reflexively "philistine" argument that's so simple, it's timeless: Public art is for the people, but the people don't like public art, so public art should be suppressed." The "people's" distaste, argue Stalker and Glymour, is quantifiable; we frequently come across petitions, assemblies, litigations, etc. that oppose such works. "Claes' Oldenburg's 'Lipstick' was so thoroughly defaced at Yale," they recall, "the sculptor retrieved it." The trend continues: The Des Plaines aldermen can't even dump such art on people for free.

Glymour and Stalker examine the possible defenses for public sculptures--moral and artistic worth, instructive value, the stimulation of intellectual discourse, economic value, and the eventual development of tolerance--and attempt to debunk each of them. The "intellectual lessons" conveyed by such art, they write, are not only trivial in comparison to real moral/social/academic ideas, but also rarely transmitted to the masses. After all, only a "small coterie of aesthetes" walks away from a Richard Serra installment thinking "Wow--his engagement with material! His creation and manipulation of space!"

I can't really speak to whether or not public art is economically valuable, and tolerance is indeed a lame defense, but the question of whether or not such works a. present intellectually compelling ideas and b. successfully communicate them is an interesting one. As an example, Glymour and Stalker point to Oldenberg's "Batcolumn," which consists of a column of glass boxes filled with mundane objects. According to the authors, the message--the idea that the frivolous underlies the self-important--is not only lost to most spectators, but also a "patently trivial thought...would not a small sign have been in better taste?"

This part of their argument rings completely and obviously false to me; asking whether or not a "small sign" would suffice is tantamount to asking why and whether we need art at all. The more compelling claim, I believe, is the problematic idea that the people fails to apprehend the meaning of public art; as someone who, despite having taken courses in the history and philosophy of art, still struggles to comprehend much of what she sees while walking to class, this strikes me as a pressing question.

If Glymour and Stalker are right on this count (and I think they are), the most patent explanation is that public art's inscrutability arises in a lack of public education. The majority of passerby don't understand such pieces because there is a dearth of instructive, lucid, and accessible information about their meaning: When was the last time you saw high-quality wall-text outdoors? If governments and institutions are willing to spend $400,000 on public art, they can spare another chunk of change on expository material that's both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually approachable. And the media, when covering such issues in papers like the Tribune, should deign to attribute the works and give some indication of their meaning.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

google omniscience

Just checked my gmail account and noticed that the sidebar provided me with a disturbingly accurate collection of advertisements:

Are You a Happy Person?
This free PhD Certified Test will show how happy you really are!
www.chatterbean.com

Feminism Ringtone
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While I'm perfectly aware that sponsored links are calibrated to my email content...Jesus Christ. Google knows me better than I know myself.

p.s. pretty excited about all of the google hits I'm going to score for using "jesus christ"

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Constancy is for the weak

Although my readers rarely chime in with constructive criticism (when this does begin to happen, prepare for erc to wield her "delete comment" key with the force of a thousand mouse-clicks), someone once mentioned to me that it might be nice if I devised some sort of regular installment. While the only regularity I've established thus far is a smattering of quasi-funny conversations with Mom and a detestable penchant for linking my own posts, this actually seems like a good habit to pick up. The guys over at Yesterday's Salad do a great job, bringing you titillating columns like Word of the Day and Who Should Write Superman?

So, with the intention of finally fulfilling this blog's hastily chosen name, I bring you the first regular feature at erc: THINGS I WON'T MISS ABOUT NEW HAVEN. It's timely (I'm graduating in one month), relevant (according to sitemeter, most of my readers live in the Elm City), and, of course, a pleasant outlet for my favorite pastime--things have gotten a little too mushy here at erc (see last post).

Without further ado:
1. The stupid weather: Much like the zombie schizophrenics who lumber up and down Elm Street, New Haven weather is simultaneously unpredictable and unpleasant, often changing from sixty degrees and sunny to forty and freezing in the course of a miserable morning.
2. Arriving at Union Station: Even typing the words "final stop" gives me the chills.
3. Koffee Too?: As much as I support local business, this place smells like moldy diapers.
4. Yale Post Office Workers: Speaking of diapers, the surly Star Jones look-a-like who runs the package counter recently taped a picture of her baby, lying in a disturbing playboy-type pose on a blanket, so that it faces away from her and towards the line, thus compelling me to stare at it for five minutes.
5. The jocky guy in the Davenport gym who changes the channel while I'm watching Jeopardy: The next time you climb onto the treadmill for your ten minute jog and flip to Laguna Beach, I'm going to rip your UnderArmour t-shirt off your back and strangle you with it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

on compatibility

A couple days ago, while a very charming philosophy professor of mine was lecturing about fictional constructs of the self, he alluded to the age-old superpower question: If given the choice, would you choose the power of flight or invisibility? Your selection, he added, is not only revealing of his or her temperament/motivations, but an indicator of whom you're compatible with; ultimately, people who choose the same superpower shouldn't be together.

While I won't divulge whether or not my own relationships have demonstrated such a harmony of differences (erc never blogs about her personal life!), the ideas evoked by such an edict are far more complex than simply saying "opposites attract." Everyone knows that a relationship necessitates some form of variety in order to sustain itself--internal variety between partners, not blindfolding your significant other to "spice things up"--but what this variety entails is complicated. As in, I could never be with someone whose values were completely different from my own (fascists, homophobes need not apply), but I could potentially see myself with someone with different skills and interests (math? good health?) from my own, or at least variant tastes. And, according to my professor and armchair psychologists everywhere, I should be looking for this--the invisible woman marries mister fantastic, after all.

While Nick Hornby books and Yale philosophy professors have taught me that compatibility doesn't reside in homogeneous tastes, I still consistently find myself fetishizing similarity (I think this is a common practice, although I may be projecting). If I meet someone at a bar, and he tells me that he's training for a marathon, or developing a new, low-cost agricultural system for third world countries, or that he's a neurosurgeon, I'll think, "Ah--what an interesting person." But if I meet someone at a bar, and he tells me that he loves Guided by Voices and Donald Barthelme, I'll think, "Ah--my next boyfriend."

Pretty screwed up?

I was thinking about this while reading the following passage in Austen's Sense and Sensibility, which occurs when Willoughby (the dashing, rich young neighbor) begin to court
Marianne (the sister who is guided by her "senses"):
"They speedily discovered that their enjoyment of dancing and music was mutual, and that it arose from a general conformity of judgment in all that related to either. Encouraged by this to a further examination of his opinions, she proceeded to question him on the subject of books; her favourite authors were brought forward and dwelt upon with so rapturous a delight, that any young man of five and twenty must have been insensible indeed, not to become an immediate convert to the excellence of such works, however disregarded before. Their taste was strikingly alike...He acquiesced in all her decisions."
Spoiler Alert: Willoughby, who turns out to be a complete cad, goes on to totally ditch Marianne for a wealthier woman, essentially performing the 18th century equivalent of blocking her screen name and defriending her on the facebook.

This account seems to corroborate the superficiality of similarity, or like-minded tastes, as a basis for real romance. But Austen's critique is more complex; she isn't arguing that love cannot blossom from shared preferences, but rather that love, or true human connection, can't form when shared preferences are derived from artifice. The characters' coinciding tastes result from their respective failure to conceive of other people; Marianne's method of examination implicates her desire to transpose her own beliefs and fantasies onto her partner without seeking his true qualities, and Willoughby's passive acquiescence/mimicry reveals his lack of self-knowledge, or his willingness to mirror Marianne's character. Using a device she often employs, Austen applies the general--"any man of five and twenty"--as a means of imputing the specific--Willoughby--as a figure who feigns an interest in books that were "disregarded before."

While I'm hardly a trustworthy peddler of romantic advice, I think Austen's got it right. It may be true that, as a girl who would choose invisibility (obviously) I should seek fly-boys--partners who would bring a different perspective to the table, and who might prove more complementary and less competitive. Ultimately, however, it's more important to view potential mates as individual entities rather than consider them relationally. Instead of looking for someone who likes the same things as I do, or someone who likes different things from me, I should choose some who is perfectly confident in declaring what he likes: Self-knowledge makes for the best company.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

...then I guess I gonna sell it!

Okay, so it's a bit hypocritical of me to post a youtube video after hating on the website a few months ago, but this is too hilarious not to share with the world (re: my smattering of readers).


Basically, I posed a strikingly similar argument to my parents when I was her age. Only I was asking for the complete Dragonriders of Pern series, not an pregnancy, and arguing that I was making too many visits to the public library to borrow the science fiction books, not sleeping with 3 dudes.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

interesting ethical dilemma

After my Italian class on Friday morning, I stopped by Durfee's Convenience Shoppe, hoping to supplement the sparse contents of my pantry--gum, diet coke, oatmeal--with some of the other comestibles I masticate on a regular basis --cheese, cereal, wheat-thins. They say grocery lists are revealing of people's personalities and lifestyles (cue stereotypical images of single, depressed women hunched over pints of Haagen-Daz). Mine only betrays my lazy reluctance to purchase food that needs to be prepared or cooked.

Anyways, I walked into Le Shoppe, and the lights were turned off. The doors (there are two entrances--one on Old Campus and one on Elm Street) were both mysteriously open, but no one was manning the register, save a hastily written sign with "GOOD FRIDAY--CLOSED" scrawled on it. As I walked around looking for an employee to ring up my selections, other students began entering Durfee's. Eventually, there were about eight of us milling around the aisles, giving each other quizzical stares.

Moments like this--social situations that deviate from normalcy, like an excessively long line at the DMV or a black-out at work--can stimulate three different responses: genial bonding between strangers, awkward hostility/suspicion, or intellectual collaboration. At Yale, a breeding ground for sociopathic geniuses and toolish morons, one generally expects some sort of mixture of the latter two effects.

A hypothetical for my readers: It's noon, you're hungry, and you're in an empty retail shoppe that's fully stocked with delicious wheat-thins and tantalizingly mild cracker barrel cheese. The other patrons are discussing whether or not the security cameras are on, and, let's face it, you're suddenly thinking like a kid who just won the Nickelodeon Super Toy Run sweepstakes--does one go straight to the expensive organic aisle? shoot for bulkier items?--as you listen to your peers. WHAT WOULD SHELLY KAGAN DO?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

star struck out

While I was perched in my usual roost at the Book Trader counter yesterday afternoon, Peter Gallagher--aka Sandy Cohen from the O.C.--walked into the cafe and into my life. Needless to say, it was the highlight of my day, if not my senior year at Yale.

I always imagined that, if I met a celebrity whose work I had admired as much as P.G.'s (and by "work," I mean seasons 1-3 of the O.C.), I would somehow FORCE myself to hatch an interaction with him or her. At the very least, I'd like to ask Sandy, er, Peter, the following questions:

1. How do they* get so big?
2. Didn't you ever want to slap Seth in his smarmy, Garden-State soundtrack listening-head?
3. Didn't you ever want to slap Kirstin in her Botoxed, vodka-chugging face?
4. Would Sandy consider giving a master's tea?
5. What does it feel like to be the moral compass for our generation?

*the Eyebrows, of course

The fact that my fantasies completely ignored the prolific acting career of P.G. is a testament to the strength of the well-known essay I was reading that fateful afternoon in Book Trader, Kendall Walton's "Fearing Fictions" (and you thought this was going to be a fluff post, reader!). Walton's essay--which seems more like a psychological study than a philosophical one--attempts the unravel why works of fiction can elicit emotional responses. The fact that representations produce literal reactions (fear, sympathy, butterflies in the stomach) generates a paradox; while most (re: everyone but celebrity stalkers and live-action-role-playing gamers) readers/viewers are aware of the fictional nature of what they are reading/watching, they still respond in a very real manner. Why does this happen?

Walton rejects several potential explanations: the idea that we "half-believe" what in what we see (after all, our heartbeat doesn't "half-increase" when we watch The Exorcist), the possibility that we suspend our disbelief (non-delusional subjects notwithstanding, we are completely aware of fictionality), the prospect that we are motivated by a "gut" belief as opposed to an intellectual one (our response, while motivated in part by physical indicators, does involve cogitation), the theory that we experience fleeting, momentary shifts from reality (nope--the emotional response is usually drawn out).

Walton's solution to the paradox (if you have access to the Journal of Philosophy, it's in the Jan. 1978 issue) subverts the typical conception of the subject/object relation; rather than converting fictional representations into reality (believing what we see is true), he argues, we convert ourselves into part of the fictional experience, merging with the work to form a "larger world." This act, writes Walton, is partly involuntary and partly willful; our comprehension of the principles of "make-believe" and our material response (butterflies et. al) are implicit factors, but our willingness to play along, to "impersonate" our own real emotional states," is a conscious decision.

So when I see Sandy, the ultimate television dilf, giving sage advice to the misguided youths of the O.C, acting the perfect husband, and demonstrating impeccable legal ethics on the silver screen, my heart flutters; despite my awareness of his fictionality, I experience an internally tangible response, I obey the principles of make-believe, and I impersonate myself in l-u-v. But what the hell happens when Peter Gallagher strides into MY WORLD, collapsing the fictional and the literal into each other? Is my reaction--which feels the same as when I watch him on TV--real, half-real, or make-believe?

And, more importantly, why didn't I take a camera phone picture of him?